John Calipari came on Kentucky Sports Radio this morning and essentially talked for 20 minutes straight about his new team. As we’ve seen throughout his tenure at Kentucky, when Cal’s feeling good about his squad, he likes to talk, and he barely let Matt get a word in, a feat in itself.
Drew’s already shared a little of what Cal said, but here are the ten most important things he said about his team, which you can tell he really, really likes.
1. The freshmen are better than he thought
More than once, Cal said this freshman class is better than he anticipated, which is creating for more competitive, physical practices than in years past.
“The young kids are better than I thought,” Cal said. “They work so hard. They’re way tougher. The guys that watched us practice last night said, ‘This is more like one of your teams where you physically can go after people.’ We haven’t been able to do that for a while. We had Bam [Adebayo], but short of that, over the last few years, we’ve had young, long, talented guys, but it took them a while to physically do that. That’s not going to be an issue this year.”
2. The standouts are Keldon Johnson and EJ Montgomery
Drew already shared this with you, but Cal basically gushed over Keldon Johnson, the one player who’s made him stop and say, “Wow.”
“I knew he’d be good, but I didn’t realize that he has the chance to be this good. I had to put him against Reid [Travis] yesterday and he did not back down. They were physically going at each other. You know what else? I’m playing him at point guard some because he can really get in the lane and he sees people. He’s pretty special.”
He is also impressed by EJ Montgomery.
“The other guy that’s better than I thought and more skilled than I knew is EJ Montgomery. He’s 6’11” but he has those skills that, maybe not quite Anthony [Davis], but kind of more like that than a Nerlens [Noel]. He shoots the ball, he can pass it.”
EJ’s been compared to Davis before, but hearing it from Cal himself is very high praise.
3. Immanuel Quickley could be this year’s MKG
Cal’s best teams have a gym rat ala Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to push their teammates to put in the extra work it takes to be special. While whispers about a new “Breakfast Club” pop up almost every season during January and February, Cal says this team is already logging overtime, starting with freshman guard Immanuel Quickley.
“Immanuel’s better, and I coached Immanuel for a while. He’s even better than I thought. And when Rob [Harris] comes back to me and talks about Immanuel being one of the hardest workers we’ve had here in the weight room and all those things, that culture that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had here, the Breakfast Club. We’re in the gym, we’re here to get better, we love playing; that’s where this group is, which is why I’m kind of happy and looking at this saying, ‘Let’s have some fun with this.'”
Speaking of Immanuel, he was held out of yesterday’s practice with a pulled groin (probably because he’s been working so hard).
4. He can’t wait until Reid Travis and PJ Washington can practice together
Now admitted to UK’s grad school, Reid Travis participated in his first practice last night and Calipari’s already looking forward to seeing how he and PJ Washington battle once PJ returns from rehabbing his finger.
“I’m anxious when PJ and he come back together where they’re either in the same group or they’re going against each other what that looks like. It’ll be interesting.”
At 22 years old, Reid is practically a grandpa amongst Cal’s usual crop of babies, to the point Cal joked he has to refrain from calling him “kid” like he does his other players. Like PJ, Cal says he wants Reid to work on his movement to prepare his game for the next level.
“My thing with him is, let’s lose some weight. Let’s be more about movement. You’re not going to lose your strength and your power but we need to get more movement, more perimeter stuff, even though, at the end of the day, we need a basket or a rebound, you’ve got to go for the ball. So, trying to tell him those things and him just getting started.”
5. More grad transfers in the future?
How excited is Cal about Reid? He said if he’s able to turn him into a first-round draft pick, he may look at more grad transfers — but only from Power 5 schools.
“If this works for Reid and he becomes that first round draft pick, now all of a sudden, it’s a different angle for us, too,” Cal said. “I wouldn’t do this for mid-major programs because I think it gets coaches fired. But if there’s Power 5 schools, and the kid has graduated and he wants to make that one run? You know, maybe we consider it then. I want to see how this plays out.”
6. A return to the dribble drive
Cal’s bread and butter when he came to Kentucky was the dribble drive, and he’s used it on and off over his nine years. With a full arsenal of drivers, shooters, and big men, he wants to return to his roots this season.
“The biggest thing is, I’m trying to get back to the dribble drive action. Everywhere I look, in the summer leagues and all this, they’re all running dribble drive. They’re running actions, motions into it, but that’s what they’re ending up with. ‘Here I come,’ lobs, skips — a lot of skips — a lot of threes. Obviously, the positionless kind of game. It’s where everything is going, which I’ve been saying for the last few years.”
In fact, get ready to see it in the Bahamas.
“I may just want to go with the dribble drive and even though we’re running guys over or look sloppy, just to get us there. You know I don’t do defense in the summer, never have, and we end up being a good defensive team, but I just think we need to work more on offense. Will we press down there? I don’t know. I may press just so we see where everybody is conditioning wise.”
7. He expects to lose a few games in the Bahamas
Calipari warned fans that the team will probably lose a few games in the Bahamas because, this go around, they’re playing better competition, including Serbian powerhouse Mega Bemax and talented Team Toronto.
“These teams are going to be better than the teams we played back then,” Cal said, referring to the 2014 trip. “We’ll probably lose a couple games down there. Just how it is because the teams are way better and they’re veteran, European teams.”
8. He wants this team to connect with the fans more
To everyone complaining they don’t know the players as well these days: Calipari hears you. That’s why he went back to the satellite camps and took his team from Frankfort to Midway to Lexington via train to get to know the Big Blue Nation a few weeks ago.
“I didn’t think that we were well connected last year as a team,” Cal said, using Hamidou Diallo as an example of a great kid who never really connected with fans. “And so, people weren’t as patient with the guys because they didn’t know them…I just felt like, we need to get out, we need to do more of the satellite stuff. You end up touching 5,000 people that way.”
9. He likes his guards
After being shorthanded at guard last season, Calipari finally has a full stable of shooters and ball handlers, from the point all the way to the wing.
“Right now, if you ask me, the most consistent shooter we’ve had has been Keldon. He’s been the most consistent. But let me just say this, Jemarl [Baker] is just behind because of his leg. He’s got to feel more confident. But Tyler [Herro] can shoot it, Immanuel can shoot it, obviously Quade [Green] can shoot it. Ashton [Hagans] is more of a downhill driver, but can make shots. His game is more of a, ‘Here I come,’ and, ‘Let me find people.’ I’m trying to slow his mind down.”
10. He’s going to be more hands-on
In recent years, Cal has let his staff handle the day-to-day stuff with the team. Not anymore. Cal is taking the reins back this summer to better establish trust with his players.
“I’m spending more time this summer with this team because I want to make sure there’s trust,” he said. “I think trust is a big part of it. The relationship I have — me personally, not my staff — with these players, to help them build their confidence and let them know that I can’t do it for you. You’ve got to work. You’ve got to spend the time. You’ve got to compete like crazy. You’ve got to do it in games, which they’re going to be able to in the Bahamas. Then, I can help you. I can be that last wave of building your confidence. But I’ve got to get a little closer to the team and that’s why I’ve been here all summer.”
Being around them so much is just one reason he’s so excited.
“It’s kind of gotten me charged up because I kind of stepped back and said, let the staff do more – and my staff has been great, they’ve been great – but I look at this and I don’t think you can transfer relationships. You have to do it.”
Listen to Cal’s entire interview below.